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Malnutrition Diseases in Children: 3 Ways to Treat the Symptoms

Published | 7 min read

Millions of children around the world suffer from malnutrition diseases. In 2019, 20.7% of Malaysian children under five were found to be malnourished.

Young Asian children sitting by the roadside.

Nutrition is vital for a child’s growth but there are many who are unable to obtain the proper food and care required to grow up healthy and strong.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported in 2019 that 20.7% of Malaysian children under the age of five have been diagnosed with malnutrition diseases.

Read on to discover the reasons behind these distressing health conditions, and ways to address their individual symptoms effectively.

Girl biting into a piece of fried chicken with her eyes closed as a plate of various fried foods is laid out in front of her
The overconsumption of deep-fried foods can disrupt Spleen and Stomach function in children.

Events that Give Rise to Malnutrition Diseases in Children

Social, economic, and environmental factors can disrupt food supply in developing countries and give birth to primary acute malnutrition. A low-quality diet due to a lack of awareness, poor maternal health and a lack of breastfeeding can also contribute to malnutrition in children. 

Secondary acute malnutrition stems from an undiagnosed disease in a person. Such illnesses can lead to an abnormal loss of nutrients, decreased food intake, or increased energy expenditure. 

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), malnutrition arises from improper eating habits, such as: 

  • Irregular meal times 
  • Poor dietary choices 
  • A fluctuation in food volume 
  • An inability to absorb nutrients efficiently 

Malnutrition diseases can happen as a comorbid condition of other illnesses. It can trigger Spleen and Stomach malfunction, resulting in the insufficient production of blood, qi (vital life force), or other body fluids. Subsequently, it’ll also prevent the skin, muscle, bones, joints, organs, and meridians from attaining proper nourishment.

Types of Malnutrition Diseases in Children 

Children who eat cold, raw, spicy, sweet, or deep-fried foods excessively can harm their Spleen and Stomach function. Foods that are difficult to digest or the inappropriate intake of tonics can also have a similar effect.

“The Spleen and Stomach are tasked with the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. These nutrients support the production of blood, qi, and other body fluids, which nourishes the body and provides a foundation of energy for all body functions. When this process is affected, the child may become malnourished in the long term,” explains Eu Yan Sang TCM Physician Jolene Chong. 

Separately, a child suffering from degenerative illnesses, or disorders like prolonged vomiting or diarrhoea, is likely to be malnourished. Medication use, premature birth, multiple pregnancies, or being ill during pregnancy can also increase a child’s risk of developing the condition.

Childhood obesity 

Children residing in urban areas are more prone to childhood obesity. In Malaysia, the condition is contributed by socioeconomic status. Underprivileged families lack the resources; hence they consume less nutritious but high calorie foods which are usually cheaper. While wealthier families tend to be able to afford to buy food, they are prone to choosing foods high calories. 

A 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) discovered 11.8% of children in Malaysia below 18 years old are classified obese. 

Nutritional anaemia 

This is the most common type of anaemia in the world and is especially prevalent among people who have limited access to food and nutrients. People with specific health statuses or medical conditions may also be at risk of the condition. Some nutrients that the human body needs to fend off nutritional anaemia are: 

  • Iron 
  • Copper 
  • Cobalamin (vitamin B12) 
  • Folate (vitamin B9) 
  • Zinc 

If depleted, a person may experience

  • Diarrhoea 
  • Headache 
  • Weakness 
  • Pale skin 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Weight loss 
  • Breathing difficulties 
  • Confusion orf clumsiness 
  • Mouth or tongue sores 
  • A craving for clay or ice 

The Kwashiorkor disease and Marasmus condition

A child can develop Kwashiorkor disease if he or she doesn’t consume adequate protein, as well as other vitamins and minerals. This is more common in underdeveloped countries.

Fluid build-up can induce swelling on various body parts, including the feet, face, and hands. It can also give rise to many other symptoms such as: 

  • Irritability 
  • Tiredness 
  • Ridged or cracked nails 
  • A loss of muscle mass 
  • A stunted growth in height 
  • An enlarged abdomen 
  • Regular or severe, long-lasting infections 
  • Red, inflamed patches of skin that darken and peel or split open 

Children who don’t consume enough protein and calories on a daily basis may be vulnerable to a condition called marasmus. A child with marasmus will lose a significant amount of body weight while suffering muscle wastage and fat depletion.

Ways to Address Malnutrition Diseases in Children 

Western medicine and TCM believe that a child’s appearance can be a sign of certain malnutrition-associated conditions. These physical indicators include: 

  • Being underweight 
  • Extreme fatigue 
  • Pale skin  
  • Hollow cheeks 
  • Sunken eyes 
  • Enlarged abdomen 
  • Abnormal bowel movement 
  • Small body frame 
  • Skinny, weak limbs 
  • Dry, brittle or yellowish hair 
  • Irritability and a bad temper 
  • Poor concentration levels 
  • Poor eating habits 
  • Susceptibility to frequent illness 
  • Tendency to suck a finger 
  • Constant desire to rub the eyes or dig the nose 

A clinical physician may order X-rays to determine bone density, identify gastrointestinal disturbances, or heart and lung damage. Blood and urine tests can also be used to measure the levels of a child’s vitamins, minerals and waste products. 

Different strokes for different folks 

Recognising the root cause of malnutrition diseases is crucial when tackling each individual condition effectively. Pre-term or low-birth-weight infants need to be exclusively breastfed and supplemented with iron for the first six months. Children with advanced chronic liver disease should lower their protein intake to prevent hyperammonaemia – a life-threatening metabolic condition.

If a child has chronic renal disease, it’ll be wise for them to consume foods that are high in calories and protein. However, protein must be consumed in portions that don’t elevate blood urea levels. Children with congenital heart disease are to consume foods that meet their daily calorie and protein intake, but be wary about over-increasing fluid levels.

Give a child’s growth a kickstart  

According to a study in Zanzibar, one to four-year-old children who were given a daily iron supplement improved their language and motor skills development. There’s also evidence that zinc supplements can reduce the risk of pneumonia and mortality in young children.

Daily zinc supplementation effectively averted pneumonia in children aged six months to three years in an Indian slum community. Additionally, these children consumed vitamin A supplements.

Current WHO guidelines recommend that infants between six to 11 months of age are to receive 100,000 IU of vitamin A once. Children between 12 and 59 months should receive 200,000 IU every four to six months.  

Load up on herbal prescription ingredients 

Herbal ingredients that boost Spleen qi and promote optimal Stomach functioning can support malnutrition disease treatment. These are astragalus root (huang qi, 黄芪), Codonopsis (dang shen, 党参), Chinese yam (shan yao, 山药) and white atractylodes (bai zhu, 白术). Herbs that can remove excess Dampness, such as poria (fu ling, 茯苓) and coix seeds (yi yi ren, 薏苡仁) are also beneficial.  

Tangerine peel (chen pi, 陈皮), patchouli (huo xiang, 藿香), cardamom (sha ren, 砂仁), hawthorn berries (shan zha, 山楂), medicated leaven (shen qu, 神曲), barley sprouts (mai ya, 麦芽) and chicken gizzard skin (ji nei jin, 鸡内金) can also be considered to boost digestion and appetite.

Physician Jolene adds, “Paediatric tuina and acupuncture are also effective ways to help children who are malnourished by improving the functions of their Stomach and Spleen, and manage the other symptoms brought about by the condition.” Two acupoints that can be stimulated are san yin jiao (SP6, 三阴交) and zu san li (ST36, 足三里).

Applying pressure to the san yin jiao (SP6, 三阴交) and zu san li (ST36, 足三里) acupoints can better Spleen and Stomach functions. 

The treatment options suggested above are more focused towards malnutrition diseases in children. It’s worth noting that a healthy lifestyle involving regulating sleep-wake cycles, exposure to sunlight and fresh air, and positive eating habits can help a child overcome the condition.

If you wish to use herbal ingredients or alternative remedies to support your child’s treatment and growth, do speak to a TCM practitioner first. In doing so, you’ll ascertain what’s suitable for your little one’s body constitution.



  1. World Health Organization. 2021. Malnutrition. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  2. UNICEF. Children, Food and Nutrition: State of the World’s Children 2019. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  3. National Library of Medicine. 2020. Acute Malnutrition in Children: Pathophysiology, Clinical Effects and Treatment. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  4. NHS. Kwashiorkor. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  5. Paras Global Hospital. What Are The Diseases Caused By Malnutrition? [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  6. National Library of Medicine. 2014. The science and practice of micronutrient supplementations in nutritional anemia: an evidence-based review. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  7. Winchester Hospital. Symptoms of Nutritional Anemia. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  8. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Malnutrition. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  9. OXFORD MEDICAL ONLINE. 2019. Setting up Community Health Programmes in Low and Middle Income Settings (4 ed.). [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 
  10. Intermountain Healthcare. 2017. Acupressure for Kids. [online] [Accessed 15 April 2022] 

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